Electric car charging stations: a complete guide
With the UK’s charging infrastructure growing at a rapid rate, here’s what you need to know about charging stations
Electric cars and plug-in hybrids are increasingly popular and better developed than they’ve ever been and the number of public charging stations is growing by the day. As a relatively new technology, however, there’s still some confusion over the various different types of charging station available, while the naming terminology bandied about can be confusing.
Our guide sets out what you need to know about electric car charging stations clearly and with as little jargon as possible. While it’s aimed primarily for drivers of electric cars (EVs) the information contained here will be of use to those after a plug-in hybrid (PHEV), too.
What is a charging station?
No concrete definition exists for charging stations, but in practical terms, a collection of two or more individual charging points amounts to a ‘station’. Don’t expect the full petrol-station forecourt experience: often a charging station is to be found in the corner of a motorway services or multi-storey car park.
Individual companies such as IKEA and some supermarkets have teamed up with charging station providers, so there are instances in which finding a charging station means loos and shops are also likely to be close by.
And while individual charging points still exist on the street, and local councils are experimenting with innovative ideas such as converting lamp posts into electric-vehicle chargers, the move towards charging stations is being driven by consumer behaviour.
According to research, the average UK driver covers just 20 miles a day, amounting to 7,400 per year, meaning the majority of charging can occur at home. That means motorway service stations provide the most logical sites for charging stations, as EV owners tend to only need to use public charging points on longer journeys.
What’s more, according to Zap-Map, which monitors the UK’s charging infrastructure, the number of electric cars registered in the UK at the end of April 2021 totalled more than 515,000, including 245,000 Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) and 270,000 Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs). This means that, despite the impact of COVID-19, the UK witnessed the biggest annual increase in the number of EV registrations last year, with more than 175,000 electric vehicles registered alone - that’s a growth of 66% on 2019.
How many public charging stations are there?
There are now thousands of public charging stations. According to Zap-Map, there are currently 15,398 locations housing 24,128 charge point devices with 41,537 individual connectors. These numbers are continually increasing, with 7,000 new locations added in 2020 alone; the biggest increase is in new 150-350kW ultra-rapid chargers. This means that electric charging points now outnumber the UK’s 8,500 petrol and diesel stations.
Who runs the charging stations?
The UK’s charging station network is owned and operated by several different companies. Most of these are energy firms, and many require you to register with them and carry a swipe card to use their machines, although some offer a smartphone app to make life easier. If you’re planning on using your electric car or plug-in hybrid for long journeys and are likely to visit lots of different regions, you’ll probably need to register with more than one provider.
It costs just under £8 a month to subscribe to Polar, the country’s largest provider, but 80% of its stations are free for subscribers. Those who own a Tesla Model S or Model X can make use of Tesla’s ‘Supercharger’ network for free, while Zero Carbon World requires no subscription and charges nothing for using its charging stations. There are also a number of regional companies with their own networks.
There are thousands of free electric car charge points across the UK, however. These are often the ones located in supermarkets, shopping centres, public car parks and hotels. But there may be conditions on the use of these charge points, such as the period of time you can use them for or an obligation to buy something from the shop where the charging point is.
What about motorway charging stations?
The only provider of motorway charging points is Ecotricity, which recently partnered with GRIDSERVE, a sustainable energy solutions provider, to develop the Electric Highway – set to be Europe’s first nationwide charging network. At present, it has 145 public stations at motorway and A-road services around the UK, providing around 300 individual chargers. These used to be free, but now cost £6 for 30 minutes’ use – although those who get their domestic electricity supply from Ecotricity are eligible for 52 free charges a year. Ecotricity came in for a bit of stick when they introduced pricing to their stations, but the company says the move was made partly to prevent PHEV owners from hogging the free points for too long, when they have petrol engines as back-up; Ecotricity wants to make sure enough access is available to those whose purely electric vehicles have low batteries.
The government is planning to invest £1bn in charging points at motorway service stations to break the one-brand monopoly. According to Rachel Maclean, a minister in the transport department, this investment will see at least six high-power chargers in every motorway service area by 2023.
How long does it take to charge an electric car?
Given the variety of electric cars and charging stations, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the time taken to charge an EV can vary too. The length of time an EV’s batteries take to recharge is determined by how many kilowatts (kW) the charging station can provide and how many the car can accept – the higher the wattage, the faster the charge. Three different rates exist:
Slow charging. Rate: 3kW. If you charge your car from ‘empty’ (either at home or at a station), a full slow charge will take around eight hours.
Fast charging. Rate: 7-22kW. A fast charging point will take around three to four hours to fully replenish an electric car’s batteries from zero charge. The majority of public charging stations offer this rate, and you can also have a fast charge box installed at home.
Rapid charging. Rate: 43-50kW. Only a few electric cars are compatible with rapid charging, but if you own a car such as the Tesla Model S or Kia Soul EV, a rapid charger will give you an 80% charge in as little as 30 minutes. Public charging points that offer rapid charging aren’t as common as fast chargers (Zap-Map puts their numbers at just under 1,000), but Tesla has its own proprietary network for use exclusively with its cars.
Remember that not all cars can accept fast charging. The entry-level Nissan Leaf, for example, can accept a maximum charge rate of 3.7kW. This means it’ll take around eight hours to fully charge. Go for Nissan’s 6.6kW option and that time halves.
Do different cars have different connectors?
Not all cars have the same types of charging connector, although there aren’t that many varieties. There are two connectors to consider: the one that plugs into your car, and the one that connects to the power source. While slow chargers at home plug into a standard three-pin socket (and sometimes an industrial socket like the one caravans and builders use), most public charging points have their own lead tethered to the station, so we’ll focus on the end that connects to the car.
A Type 2 Mennekes connector
Slow chargers These have have a Type 1 (J1772) connector or a seven-pin Type 2 (Mennekes) connector.
Fast chargers Almost all fast chargers have a Type 2 (Mennekes) connector, though some use a Type 1 (J1772).
Rapid chargers These come in two flavours: AC and DC. DC rapid chargers use a JEVS (CHADeMO) or a CCS (Combined Charging System) connector. Rapid AC chargers are rarer, and have only a Type 2 (Mennekes) connector.
CHAdeMO connectors are of Japanese origin and are fit electric Nissans, Toyotas and Mitsubishis if they’re capable of rapid charging. Volkswagen, BMW and Ford favour Type 1 (J1772) connectors and the related CCS system.
A CCS connector
In practice, you only need to make sure you’re using a charging point with a connector that fits your car. Assuming your car can accept fast charging, you’ll probably find yourself using a Type 2 Mennekes connector.
Tesla Superchargers and Destination charging
Tesla’s proprietary rapid chargers are known as ‘Superchargers’ and there are over 150 of these in the UK. They charge at 120kW, and can give roughly 170 miles of range in 30-40 minutes.
While all Tesla customers used to have access to the Supercharger network for free, Model S and Model X customers who ordered their cars after 15 January 2017 are given 400kWh of energy (equivalent to around 1,000 miles) for free, with each subsequent kWh being £0.20. Tesla is honouring the agreements it made with customers before 15 January 2017 though, making the Supercharger network free for those individuals.
Tesla also offers something called ‘Destination’ chargers, which tend to exist at hotels, B&Bs, shopping centres, campsites, golf clubs and similar locations. Destination chargers are slower than Superchargers, operating at a maximum of 22kW and providing around 60 miles of charge in an hour.
Can I install a charging point at home?
It’s fairly easy to have a charging point installed at home, and this is generally a sensible idea. A home charging point will allow you to use fast charging – though not rapid. It’s estimated that around 80% of electric car charges take place at home, and the Government will give you a grant towards the cost of installing your own charging point. This is capped at 75% of the cost of installation, or £500, though some car makers will carry the entire cost of installation, meaning you won’t have to pay a penny.
It’s important to understand the correct connectors and charge rates for electric vehicles, but it’s also a good idea to know the informal conventions that surround charging at public stations. The broadly accepted rules are:
Keep an eye on your car’s charge status. One the batteries are nearly charged (or charged to 80%, an amount some consider ideal), unplug your car and move it from the charging bay so others can use it.
Plug-in hybrids should give priority to pure electric cars. If you’re charging your PHEV and someone in a Nissan Leaf needs your charging point, do the right thing. You’ve got a petrol engine to fall back on, whereas they may be stranded until they can recharge their batteries.
Don’t unplug someone else’s car. If you’re at a motorway service station and encounter an EV that’s been left in a charging bay for a long time, ask if staff can make a tannoy announcement, encouraging the car’s owner to move. Some consider it okay to unplug a car that’s finished charging, but this isn’t always easy to tell and may not be met with kindness. If you must do it, leave a note on the owner’s windscreen, explaining why. Bear in mind some connectors don’t allow you to unplug them when the car is locked.
Report any damage to charging stations to the network operator. The supplier’s phone number will be on the charging point.
Offer to help. If you spot someone who’s having difficulty with their car or charger, ask if you can be of assistance. Charging stations have become a lot more reliable over recent years, but problems still crop up from time to time.
Stow the charging cable neatly when you’re finished. A loose cable can pose a trip hazard or be run over and damaged.
Should you buy an electric car?
There’s no denying that owning an electric car needs more forethought than a conventional petrol or diesel model requires. Even if you’re confident about how to charge your car and how long this is likely to take, journeys that exceed the batteries’ range will require longer or more frequent pit stops than you might be used to.
There are huge advantages though, mainly to do with cost and the environment. Electric cars are extremely cheap to run because their recharging costs are almost negligible, while the fact they don’t emit any nasty pollutants from their exhausts means there’s no road tax to pay. And, of course, their lack of emissions can only be a good thing for our towns and cities. If you buy your electricity from a green provider, recharging becomes more environmentally friendly, too.
It’s important to bear in mind electric car technology is still developing, and given that public charging points only started to appear in the UK in 2007, it’s impressive that the charging network has grown as much as it has.
There does need to be an industry-wide agreement on connectors and payment, though, as the number of possible options for both is too varied at present. Nobody has yet come up with an elegant solution for the 30% of households who have to park on the street, either, and leads trailing across the pavement pose too many risks.
Still, if you consider that it took decades before early railway companies standardised their trains and tracks to make them interchangeable between networks, it’s remarkable that electric cars and public charging stations are already as universal as they are.
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